Fleur Beale has done it again. Being Magdalene is destined to be as big a classic as the first book in the series about the Pilgrim children, I am not Esther. The other in the series, I am Rebecca, was a finalist in both the judge’s and the children’s choice lists in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults this year; and was Librarian’s Choice at the LIANZA Hell Children’s Book Awards.
Once again we enter the mind of a child who is a member of the fundamentalist sect The Children of the Faith. 12-year-old Magdalene is the second-youngest child of the Pilgrim family, and Zillah is her 8-year-old sister. Zillah is intelligent and rebellious, and while she understands what she must and must not do under the Rule they live by, Magdalene protects Zillah emotionally from the most severe of the cult’s rulings. They go to the ‘Faith’ school, and this is the only school Zillah has ever known. At this school, girls are taught only enough to make them good wives, which annoys the extremely intelligent Zillah.
Magdalene and Zillah have two older brothers, Abraham and Luke. Neither brother lives devotedly within the Rule, and Luke wants to go to university eventually to study religion; to understand the true history of how religion occurs. Abraham, meanwhile, wants to study electrical engineering, the benefits of which to the Faith community are initially doubted, but ultimately accepted – with the caveat that those who leave the faith to study must be married men.
The genius of this story is that on the surface of it, this is the story of faithful children being raised by an arbitrary rule created by a single man, Elder Stephen, who claims to speak for the Lord. Dig deeper, and it is a story of any people who live in oppression; or any teenager who lives within the rules their parents define, seemingly arbitrarily.These things are not the same to us, but to a teenager, what do you think?
Being Magdalene is an extremely tense read. Throughout the book, Magdalene is struggling in her mind between what she has been raised to believe is right and true; and the flaws she can see in that which the Elders are preaching. Her biggest concern is that her sister’s spirit will be squashed by the Rule, and that she will never grow into her potential. Magdalene goes to hospital early on in the book after making her hands bleed through digging a deep hole in the sand: she has no memory of this incident, but this is the first time we encounter worldly people and their opinions of the cult.
The doctors that see Magdalene are immediately suspicious of sexual misconduct, and violence within the cult: that’s what everybody thinks a cult is. This happens again and again, each time Magdalene has to interact with outsiders, they judge her before knowing her. Magdalene’s wounds are not on the surface however, they go much deeper than anybody realises until later in the book.
I urge you to read this brilliant book about how the human spirit can triumph against adversary, and how people can heal themselves better than they know. It is a universal tale, told with clarity and grace.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
by Fleur Beale
Published by Penguin Random House NZ